Opinion: Carolina Beat

Ideas Have Consequences in Wake County

RALEIGH — Gerald Grant’s book, Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, is important insofar as it attempted to justify, perhaps even celebrate, forced busing in the Wake County Public School System. It is worth considering the ideas behind Grant’s book that generate so much enthusiasm from the pro-busing crowd and how those ideas empower advocacy groups and bureaucrats at the expense of teachers and parents.

Grant is a disciple of James Coleman, author of the 1966 government report “Equality of Educational Opportunity” (later called the Coleman Report), one of the most significant education studies of the 20th century. Coleman concluded that the socioeconomic status and family backgrounds of students were greater determinants of educational outcomes than school factors like per pupil spending.

Researchers have discredited thoroughly the statistical methods and theoretical assumptions used by Coleman and his colleagues. However, Coleman’s fundamental idea endures — educational improvement requires more attention to social dynamics and less attention to institutional reform. Activist professors and opportunistic politicians quickly developed forced busing schemes based on race, class, and other nonacademic, sociological factors.

For advocacy organizations and special interest groups, forced busing is a moral cause. The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP recently called the Wake County school board decision to end forced busing “an educational, social, and moral crisis for our community.” This is not hyperbole. Rather, it is based on the idea that public schools’ first responsibility is to ameliorate perceived social injustices by engineering (busing) them out of the system.

What is most disconcerting about the sociological approach to educational reform is that it grants, even encourages, state and local bureaucracies to make sweeping policy decisions with little accountability. Centralizing power thus becomes a sensible way to hasten the pace of change and bypass politics, elections, or legislative processes.

More important, state education agencies and local administrators have no trouble accepting greater power because they often see themselves as enlightened, moral agents of “progressive” social change.

Unlike their colleagues in the central office, most experienced teachers often do not consider themselves social crusaders. Teachers know that placing a rich kid next to a poor kid does not transform a struggling student into a successful one. It takes knowledgeable and skilled instructors.

Yet, proponents of forced busing often insist that it is less important for teachers to master content, instruction, and classroom management than serve as their students’ social worker, therapist, role model, and de facto parent.

Proponents of forced busing acknowledge that parents of low-performing students share some of the blame. Yet they believe that properly engineered schools can transcend the problems low-income students encounter at home.

Gerald Grant explains: “Through this network of friends, less privileged students would get to know parents who might help them get a job or gain admission to college or simply serve as role models. Schools with a majority of middle-class parents will not tolerate incompetent teachers, or drinking fountains that don’t work, or restrooms with no toilet paper.”

Should one assume that parents of less privileged students are not interested in their child’s educational or occupational prospects and tolerate incompetent teachers, broken drinking fountains, and restrooms with no toilet paper? I sincerely hope not. Yet, if low-income parents are not engaged in their child’s education, perhaps dependency on middle class parents is partly to blame.

Our public schools need to empower parents to make educational decisions that are in the best interest of children. Tuition tax credits and charter schools, not forced busing, will improve the plight of low-income students in Wake County and beyond.

Terry Stoops is director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.